“It’s Iphigenia, Curtis,” she choked. “She’s … she’s …” But what, exactly, Prue couldn’t know.
They had all borne witness. Clearly, that had been the intention; that way the boy would serve as an example to them all. It had happened quickly and it was over quickly. After it happened, the other children in the machine shop returned, seemingly unmoved, to their duties, and the puffing and clanking of the room’s machines continued unabated. They had seen it before, many times.
The boy’s name was Carl. Elsie had spoken to him once in the cafeteria. He was a year older than her and was a heavyset child with red curly hair. He’d been nice to her—he’d noticed her Intrepid Tina doll and had said that he’d been a fan of the TV show, when he was still living with his birth parents, before they’d perished in a strange Jet Ski accident. And that was the sole interaction Elsie had had with the boy.
The incident began with a whimper, literally. A whimper that could be heard throughout the ringing shop. It came from Carl himself as he stood at his station, manning a machine that was easily one hundred times his size and mass. It was called a Bifurcated U-Bolt Bender, and it did what its name implied: it bent bifurcated U-bolts. He’d obviously been spacing out, as he’d pressed the purple button when he should’ve pressed the black. He let out his knowing whimper; at that point, the Bifurcated U-Bolt Bender had ceased bending bifurcated U-bolts and began bending itself. Two loud popping noises sounded from within the machine, and then it came to a rattling halt, smoke belching from its riveted seams.
Some sort of emergency power shutoff must’ve been triggered, because all the machines in the shop suddenly ground to a stop, and the pale fluorescent light that typically bathed the warehouse was replaced by a demonic, flashing red. Everybody began casting about, trying to figure out what had caused the stoppage; their eyes eventually landed on Carl, who was standing by the smoking Bifurcated U-Bolt Bender with a guilty look on his face. Martha, at the conveyor belt, had removed her goggles and blanched. “Oh no,” she’d whispered.
“What?” hissed Elsie, standing back from her inoperative machine. The upside-down ice-cream-cone-shaped insignia was flashing angrily. It was the only time Elsie’d seen it actually do something.
“He’s already got two,” said Martha cryptically.
“Two what?” asked Elsie, but in the time it took to say those words, she understood. “Demerits?”
The room flooded with light, and the machines made a strange hu
m; footsteps pounded the stairs to the factory floor. It was Mr. Unthank, who had apparently restarted the power to the room. A glower clouded his goateed face, and it looked as if he’d been interrupted from his lunch: A narrow band of what appeared to be tomato soup made a kind of second mustache on his upper lip.
“What was that?” he demanded. No one answered. He stalked to the obvious culprit, Carl and his machine, and glared.
“What have you done, boy?” he asked.
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Unthank, sir. I didn’t mean nothin’. I just …” Here, he swallowed so loud that Elsie heard the gulp! from across the room. “I just pressed the purple button when I shoulda pushed the black one.”
“Purple,” repeated Unthank, as if needing to restate the words for comprehension. “Black.”
Unthank rubbed his small beard thoughtfully. His hand recoiled when his fingers met the tomato soup remnant, and he studied them before licking them clean and wiping them on his argyle sweater. “What’s your name, little boy?”
“Carl, do you know how much one of these machines costs? Hmm?”
“A LOT OF MONEY!” Unthank yelled abruptly. He took a deep breath and regained his composure. “Not only that, Carl, but it’s going to take time to repair. Time this machine could spend bending bifurcated bolts.” The words seemed to trip from his lips effortlessly.
“Right, sir,” said the boy.
“I’m afraid I’ve got no choice but to hand down a demerit for this mistake, Carl.”
The boy began to cry. Little tears fell from his eyes and cascaded down his cheek. Unthank guessed at his dismay. “Miss Mudrak?” he called out.
The loudspeaker popped with static. “Yes, Joffrey?” came Desdemona’s voice.
“Will you look and see how many demerits are on record for Carl …” He paused and motioned to the boy. “Carl … ?”
“Carl Rehnquist, sir.”